by Joseph Éamon Cummins
This short story (3500 words) takes 15-20 minutes to read. It is adapted from a flashback chapter in On the Edge of the Loch, which is set in the 1990s.
Aranroe Village, Western Ireland, 1963
Once more her gaze broke from the frosted-glass door. She drilled the red of her last Woodbine into the damp pavement and through a cloud of exhaled fog she strode up the rectory path, petite feet hop-scotching in her wake. Her insipid ring tolled the bells within the holy house and drew a hobbling shadow up the hall. The aged housekeeper led her and the child into a parlour of clashing patterns and lemon-polish air.
“You’ll have to speak up, love. The old hearing is not what it was.” The woman bent closer. “Who did you say will I tell Father is here?”
“Roisin Doyle. From Ellistown Hill.”
“Wee one’s full of go, isn’t she?” The old woman’s warm eyes danced after the child skipping about. “Speedy Gonzales, what? What age is she, love?”
“She’s four now. Has me jaded.”
“Gorgeous blue eyes, God bless her. A new pair of hips now and I’d be keeping up with her. Mind she doesn’t smash into Father Coy’s crystal; he’ll have one of his fits. I’ll go and get himself for you.”
The young woman pulled off her paisley head-scarf and shoved it into the pocket of her raincoat. In the glass of the cabinet she frowned, pressed into place wisps of her tight red hair and wiped a finger under both eyes. Five minutes passed before the room door squealed in.
She jumped to her feet. The curate, a large, not un-handsome man with a coal-black mane, stood before her, expressionless.
The priest’s attention dropped to the child, still lost in play.
“Shh, shh, shhhh!” His admonition brought silence. The child’s bottom lip pushed out; she darted to her mother, who struggled to lift her into her arms.
“Father Coy,” the priest said, pulling a chair out from the table and flopping onto it. “So. You’re here about the bingo.”
“Oh no, Father, no. No, I want to get married, Father, here in Aranroe, in June, in St Brigid’s, to an American man.” Her words poured out, bunched together as though otherwise they might go unspoken.
“An American?” He picked a pen and a black notebook from his inside pocket. “How long have you known him, this American?”
“Oh, better part of five years ago I met him first but we—”
“The child. She’s my daughter. Leonora Ann Marie.”
“You’re Roisin Doyle, widow?”
“Oh no. No, Father, I’m not. I was never married. And the man, he’s not a Catholic yet, Father, not at the minute, but he promised me he’ll convert over for me.”
“This man: his name, date of birth?”
“Charles Kenneth Quin, with one n, Father, in Quin, I mean. Can’t remember right now what his date of birth is. He’s a few years older than I am. It’s either—”
“Older? How older? What’s this ‘a few years’?”
“He’s I think thirty-four now. Thirty-four or thirty-five. His father owns a big ranch, Father, in America.
“What else do you now about him?”
“What else. He’s tall. And nice looking.” She stalled, like she was watching her dreams. “And he went to college and got letters after his name. And he climbs mountains, Father; that’s why he came to Ireland, in ’58, to be the first American to climb to the top of Mweelrea, except that it was lashing and he had to stop and come down. And he stuck the American flag up there and we think it’s still there. He’s only got one—”
“Your age?” the priest’s eyes stayed in his notebook.
“Age . . . twenty-two. Charles is very well-to-do, Father. He’ll give Leonora a good warm home, send her to good schools. He will. He wants to find a hotel to buy here in Mayo, near Aranroe. That way we’ll be staying in St Brigid’s parish.”
“This man, why is he not here with you? Does he not think the Church is important enough?”
“Ah no, no, he does, Father, he does definitely. He’s good like that, ‘cept he’s in America at the minute. He’s an executive. But he comes here all the time, stays up at the Abbey as a rule. That’s where we met, Father, at Claire Abbey.”
“That a fact now? So. And you believe this is a union God will bless? Meeting in a bar, a public house? Did no one teach you anything at home about the evils of drink?”
“Claire Abbey? It’s a fancy place, Father, a hotel for rich people, from America and places like that. Been working there now, I have, this past five years. It’s really posh, you should—”
“Never married. And this is your child. Born out of wedlock. And I take it this older, non-Catholic, rich American globe-trotter is the father?”
Her body tensed.
The priest stared into her face then slapped the table. “I asked you a question.” He lunged toward her. “Is he or is he not the man responsible for this — this individual?”
“Sorry. Sorry, Father, I can’t answer that . . . sorry.”
“So, so, so. The father could, could be him. Or it might be any of a number of other men you’ve sinned with. And you have the nerve—”
“No! No, that’s not true, Father.” Her eyes grew distant, her fingers coursing through the child’s wild auburn hair. “There was only one. It’s just that I don’t want to say.”
“Oh you’ll say all right, mark my words, if you’re to hold any hope of being married in this parish.” He gavelled his pen against the table. “I warn you, my patience is not inexhaustible.”
“Would it . . . be OK for me to think about it, Father, for a day, or a couple of days?”
“There’ll be no thinking about it. You’ll tell me this instant.” He positioned his pen to begin writing. “Father’s name?”
“I can’t, Father. I’m sorry. I can’t.” She hugged the child to her, their bonded bodies swaying gently. Then her gaunt face firmed. “No. Can’t,” she whispered with reflective certainty.
“Then that’s it. Over! Won’t be happening in my parish; you can put that in your drum and beat it.” He reached for the housekeeper’s bell. “Mrs McEvoy will show you out.”
“What I mean, Father, is—”
“No! I’ll tell you what you mean. You’re protecting the fornicator and yourself from rightful shame, guilt you both earned, the sinfulness of the lewd and the lecherous who lost Paradise for all mankind through your very same sins of the flesh.” He sprang up, red-faced, pocketed his pen and notebook. “Off with you now.”
“But my little girl, Father, please. She’ll need a father, a proper home. She’s only—” Her voice fell away. “She needs a family, that’s all I’m saying, someone who’ll look after her. Fact is I’m not blessed with the best of health.”
“The very things you should have been thinking before you conceived in sin another suffering unfortunate.”
“I know that. I know what you’re saying is the truth, Father. It was just—”
“Selfishness! Carnal selfishness, pure and simple. So. Now you think you can cover it up by marrying an American millionaire rancher probably old enough to be your father. Who nobody knows one iota about, who doesn’t even live in the parish, isn’t even a Catholic.” He thumped the chair back into place at the table. “Not at all, woman, not here you don’t. Off you go.”
The damp whiteness of her cheeks turned ghostlike, haloed by her tight carrot-red hair. She stood up, cradling the child. “I’m begging you, please. I really am.”
The priest clacked the door handle, swept his arm toward the dark hallway. But, trembling, she remained where she stood. He clacked harder at the handle.
“Father Coy, we can — you can have your way.” The brittle monotone of her words carried barely concealed contempt. “My baby, my little girl, Leonora, the man, her father—”
A burst of noise punctured her distress. At the far end of the room, the door from the heart of the house swung in hard against its hinges, a priest in black serge, middle-aged, greying, was already at the cabinet, green Jameson bottle now in hand, not seeming to realize their presence.
“Oops, I beg your pardon,” he said with an exaggerated startle, lisping his words through an easy grin. “Sleep-walking again. No known cure, I’m afraid.” He retreated with the bottle, then stopped, stared at Roisin’s spent bearing. “Anything I can help with? Father Coy?”
“Nothing at all, Father. Few minutes, that’s all, we’ll be gone.”
“Wait a minute!” A puzzled squint creased his face, then he lit it up. “You’re Tommy Doyle’s wee girl! That’s who you are!”
“I’m Liam Foley,” he said, as though she should recognise his name. He captured her hand between his palms and guided her into a soft chair. “Holy God, look at you, you’re all grown up. Your da and meself — God rest your poor father’s soul; it was a terrible thing that happened — we played on the Westport team in the late forties and early fifties. You must’ve heard him talk about Kicker — me! Kicker Foley?”
Roisin’s features half acknowledged. With her hand still in his, he stayed his gaze in the manner of one perceiving beyond what was being offered.
“Right, I’ll see you out now,” the younger priest said. “The parishioner was just leaving, Father.”
“And who’s this gorgeous little scallywag, what?” The older man leaned forward and beamed at the child. The girl spun back to her mother. “Oh, I see, I see, said the blind man; that’s how it is, is it? Well, well, well, look what I’ve got.” His fingers gradually revealed a Flash Bar, which he held up and painted with a delicious fixation. “I’ve been saving this for the most gorgeous six-year old girl in Aranroe — wherever and whenever, I might find her.”
“I’m four, I’m not six.” The muffled response was immediate.
“Father Foley—” The curate’s intrusion brought a glanced rebuke.
“Ooohhh, well then, I’ll just have to give it to a gorgeous wee lassie who is not six, and not even five; I’ll have to give it to a wee lassie who is four.” His animated gazing searched left and right and all around. “Does anybody here know, is there a gorgeous, four-year old girl anywhere in this house?”
“Me!” The child’s response came with a big blue-eyed smile. She climbed down from her mother, held up a qualifying hand, then reached for the waiting chocolate. Suddenly, it disappeared. Then long magician fingers fluttered over the suddenly empty hand, beckoned the Flash Bar back, fluttered a second time, beckoned again, and a third time.
“Abra-cadabra,” the priest recited, “Abra cadabra.” Then magically the top of the Flash Bar reappeared, the green wrapper creeping higher and higher, up from behind up-standing fingers, until all of it was back and it tipped over and pointed toward the child, setting off their shared shrieks of delight. “I bet I’m the first real live magician you ever met,” he said, placing the prize in her tiny hands.
With the child preoccupied, his aspect darkened. “A mhuirnín, tell me what the trouble is; I see the bother all over you.”
Her glance flashed to the younger priest then fell to her lap, wherein rested her ringed left hand.
“I’ve been clear with the parishioner, Father Foley,” the younger man said, “about what the Church can and cannot do.”
“Do about what?”
“The parishioner had been hoping—”
“Roisin! That’s it!” Father Foley cried out, ignoring the curate’s hanging face. “How could I forget — Roisin.” He eased closer to her. “I was so fond of your poor da. He’d be telling me all about you, when you were only knee-high to a grasshopper. His ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ he called you because you slept day and night.” He journeyed off for an instant behind a private smile then was suddenly back, graver. “What is it, girl, what troubles you? Tell me.”
She recounted her desire to be married in the parish in June, withstanding the grimaces of Father Coy.
“Ó caílín caoin dearg, settle yourself, will you. You’ve not a thing to worry about as long as I have health in me. But look at you, you’re as skinny as a skeleton. Get some meat on your bones; will you try do that for me? The clinic’s looking after you, is it, and the wee one?”
“Aye, Father, ‘tis. And Dr Lappin’s one of the best.”
“He is that,” he said, drawing the big brown ledger across the table. “One of the best, but there’s ne’er an ounce of humour in the poor man; God be good to him.”
“Father Foley, I must speak with you.” The curate’s tone now bore warning.
“In private, if I might.”
“No.” The older man shook his head. “Right here, as long as it’s relevant.”
“Bishop Buckley has been very clear on this sort of thing. The Church’s rulings are not to be flouted, Father, not for—”
“Enough! That’ll do, Father Coy. I see no reason not to write it in the book this minute. What date in June, Roisin, are you thinking?”
“Excuse me, Father, I must insist. My vocation compels me to object in the strongest terms. An altar ceremony would not be proper, not in the eyes of the Church.”
“Proper! Proper, you say!” The older man jumped up, glared at his challenger. “In my book, Father — my book,” he jabbed his thumb into his chest, “and in the book I follow, living the faith comes first and last. ‘Proper’ is for smug bishops and the tally-ho set who’ve both bedevilled this poor unfortunate country.”
He swept back his dishevelled silver-streaked hair and turned to Roisin. “Now, mo chuisle, let’s see what June looks like and we’ll put your details in.”
“Parish priest you might be,” the flushed curate cried, “but you’ve no grounds to be disrespectful of the rules. You know this is going against diocesan directives. Bishop Buckley is adamant that—”
“Right, Father! Enough! As long as I’m in charge here, I’ll decide what’s right. Not you. Me! And I’ll deal with Bishop Buckley if it comes to that.” He whipped off his collar and flung it against the mahogany table, along which it bounced and slid then tumbled off at the end. “The man doesn’t know — never knew — one friggin thing about this little piece of Mayo bogland; never laid eyes on Loch Doog, wouldn’t know Mweelrea if it bit him in the arse, whether we’re east or west of the Shannon or north or south of the friggin equator. So, cut the Bishop bulldust, Dick!”
The curate smirked and exhaled loudly.
“Thanks,” Roisin whispered. “It’s Leonora I care about. I want her, I want her to have a good healthy life.” She re-grasped the priest’s hand.
“Curate I might be.” The younger priest stomped toward the table. “But Dick Coy has his duty and do it he will.” He snatched up his folded-inside-out overcoat and bustled into the hall. “The Bishop will hear about this post haste. This priest will see that he does.”
“Father Coy, don’t leave this house! I want a word with you right now.” The older man’s tone bore no hint of concession. His blood-shot eyes swung back to Roisin, then heavenward. “Wants to be Pope,” he whispered, “and not a wet day out of the seminary.” He pressed a finger to his lips and winked back at her reassuringly before pulling the door behind him.
In the hallway Father Coy presented a face of beaten steeliness. “Don’t try talk me out of this. My decision is made and it’s final. I’ll be respected, Father, and by those in higher places than you. You’ve gone against me for the last time.”
“Tell me this, Dick: what made you put on that collar?” The parish priest glared at his understudy. “I’m asking you. Was it for the love of Jesus Christ and His flock? To heal? To comfort? To help those in need? Or was it for the power, the status that comes with the cloth? Or do you know yet?”
“Not on, not a chance you’ll bamboozle me with your liberation psychology. It’s priests like me that’ll restore the Church in Ireland, in this very parish, and not long from now. And not with cry-baby Christianity either; you can count on that.”
“Calm down, Father. I’m offering you an opportunity to retract your threat.”
“An opportunity? You, you are offering me an opportunity? Ridiculous, man, the shoe’s on the other foot this time. The bad blood between yourself and Bishop Buckley, it’ll get you shifted before the month’s out, back to Finglas — or Kilburn maybe.” A smirk kinked the curate’s lips. “Nothing better than a bit of curate’s work, I say, to re-focus a vocation. I’ll do what’s needed here, you needn’t fear that.”
“Listen to me, Dick—”
“Nothing more to say.” He snapped open the door latch then turned: “Dick Coy’s duty is neither deniable nor negotiable.”
“The words of Saint Thomas Aquinas. For a different time and place.”
“And still relevant today. I’m off.”
“Father Coy. Father Coy.” Suddenly the older priest thundered: “Hold you friggin horses!”
The curate poked his head back into the dimly-lit hall. “The talking is over. I should have done this a year ago; and your temper won’t change my mind one bit. Good night.”
”Question for you, Father, before you go to glory: Where did you spend your time last night?”
“What? Last night? What do you mean?”
“You heard me. Step back inside, please. Now.”
Father Coy complied, awkwardly.
“Well? Where were you?”
“Last night, Father? Last night, when last night? Different places. I’m not the cleric in this parish who keeps spirits in the holy house.”
“No, that you’re certainly not that. Answer my question.”
“Of no concern. None at all. Three, four calls, routine duties, no more. I’m off now.” He stepped out, started to pull the door after him.
“Between nine o’clock and eleven o’clock?”
“Things. Various things. Duties. I don’t know; I didn’t bring my watch.” The younger priest spoke from beyond the half-closed door, out of sight of his questioner. Gone from his voice was the cut of minutes earlier; now replaced by an edginess. “Anyway, it’s nobody’s—”
“Well, I do know,” Father Foley said, pulling open the door. “Force my hand and your purple-hatted pals will know. Inside, Father. Now!”
“This is ridiculous. Downright ridic—”
“No, it’s not. And you know why. You were down at The Terraces. In the company, let’s say, of certain parties I won’t be naming, unless you leave me no choice. Things going on, Father, things your good bishop would see you to hell for.” The older priest’s bearing held a savage ruthlessness. “Count on this, Dick: Whisper a word in the wrong place against Roisin Doyle’s wedding — and your collar’s mine. Clear enough for you?”
“Yes, Father.” The curate mulled back into the hall. His shaking fingers pushed the door until the brass bolt drove home.
“I want what’s going on down there to stop. Do you understand that? I’ll help you any way I can. If you’re seen within a furlong of The Terraces I’ll hear about it and there’ll be ructions in this house. We’ll talk in the morning. Eleven o’clock?”
The curate nodded. “Goodnight, Father.” Clutching his hands in front of him, he lumbered up the unlit staircase.
“And mark your calendar for June 2nd!” Liam Foley’s voice surged up into the darkness, beating off the hard walls, and echoed through the rectory.
He then flopped down onto the bottom stair with an introspective smile. “Kicker Foley to be the celebrant of record,” he said heavenward. “Do you hear that, Tommy? You do, I know you do, you boyo.” He paused, then continued with an air of fulfilment. “The morning of the second of June, Tommy, in the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and sixty-three, your old pal Kicker Foley will be marrying your Beautiful Dreamer to her American beau. And woe to the cleric of any colour who tries to stop me.”
Copyright 2018: Joseph Éamon Cummins
Edge of the Loch can be purchased at Amazon as an ebook or print book.